Universities are ready to help government with their research expertise

16 June 2022

Tim Dodd | The Australian

It’s not that academic expertise has never been used by government to solve major challenges. Particularly during Covid, the medical, scientific, economic, and many other forms of expertise from university researchers were were put to good use.

But universities were not the Morrison government’s automatic first port of call in a crisis, and neither did the recognition that universities received for their work send the acknowledgment meter off the dial.

Part of the problem was a perception issue created by universities themselves. Governments have long received plea after plea for more money from universities, along with dire warnings of what the results would be if that funding was not forthcoming.

It’s not hard to see that this is not an approach that bears fruit over time, particularly at the moment when governments have a huge fiscal problem while nearly all universities are in the black. In fact many Group of Eight institutions returned their biggest ever surpluses in 2021.

In the past couple of years some universities have been thinking about how to put their relationship with government on a different footing. The Group of Eight, in particular, has consciously emphasised during Covid what universities can do for government, as opposed to what government can do for universities.

Under the Morrison government this approach didn’t appear to do much to improve the relationship.

But now, post-election, things are different. The tone of the conversation has changed, says Group of Eight CEO Vicki Thomson. She asserts that, when addressing the nation’s challenges, “it is in our universities that we will find the solutions we need”.

“Early indications are that we have a government that ‘gets it’,” she says.

This is not to say that universities believe their every wishlist will be fulfilled. They, like the rest of the country, recognise that the new government faces a forbidding list of economic, social and national security challenges. So universities are not expecting a stream of new money. But they are hopeful that they become valued collaborators in solving Australia’s current problems.

The prime one they can help with is the skills crisis, a product of the two years of a closed border.

“Together with the government, we can balance the needs of Australian workers, migrants, businesses, regions, and the workforce to create a system that is high-quality, targeted, measured and responsive,” says Luke Sheehy, executive director of the Australian Technology Network university grouping.

Universities also have major contributions to make to many other policy challenges facing the government, whether it is boosting manufacturing, transitioning to renewable energy, building sovereign capability, improving aged care, or protecting national security.

They also are able to support the government in dealing with Australia’s new regional security problem – building strong and lasting ties with neighbouring countries to help thwart China’s regional ambitions. International students studying in Australia create strong future links with the region, and the government can back universities to help make these ties enduring.

The fact that former University of Melbourne vice-chancellor Glyn Davis started this week as the secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, means that the capabilities of university experts to contribute to policy will be well understood at the highest government level.

In fact Davis’ appointment is an example of university expertise being put to good use by the government. As well as having experience in running two universities (Griffith prior to Melbourne), he has top level public service experience (director-general of the Queensland Department of Premier and Cabinet) and is a highly regarded academic researcher in public administration.

There are also other signs of an awakening to the fact that university researchers are valuable in policymaking. The James Martin Institute for Public Policy, established last year with the backing of the NSW government, is there to harness university expertise to help government find optimal answers to policy problems.

A pet project of NSW Infrastructure and Cities Minister Rob Stokes, the institute brings policy makers together with academics to brainstorm the best solutions.

Taken together, all these factors indicate that the time is right for universities to take a higher, more influential, profile in advising government. And the indications are that government will value universities’ contribution.